A review of this week’s Lovecraft Country, “Strange Case,” coming up just as soon as I finish the Little Orphan Annie radio puzzle…
“I enjoyed my entire day, using the only currency that I needed: whiteness.” -Ruby
Is whiteness in and of itself a superpower?
This is the question asked and answered by the fantastic “Strange Case,” in which Ruby wakes up transformed into a white woman and discovers just how much easier life is as “Hillary Davenport” than it’s ever been inside her own flesh.
First, though, the hour is a spectacularly gory piece of body horror. As someone who has not borne witness to all the adventures, magical and otherwise, that her sister has had over the previous four episodes, Ruby is understandably shocked and terrified to wake in the morning and face a reflection not her own — particularly with William not around to explain what’s happened to her. After being “rescued” by a couple of racist white cops who assume she’s in danger among her South Side neighbors, Ruby-as-Hillary is delivered to William, who poses as her concerned husband. Meanwhile, the borrowed body begins to crackle and break even as she’s moving around in it. The sound design alone is unbelievably gross, and then it all gets more stomach-churning as we see things moving around underneath her skin, followed by William dragging her by her ankles to a rug on the floor, and plunging a carving knife into her body.
And this is all fairly mild, blood-and-guts-wise, compared to what’s coming.
It won’t be clear until later in the hour that William wasn’t attacking Ruby in that moment, but simply cutting away the rotting husk of Hillary as the spell wore off. (It also won’t be clear until even later that William isn’t William. But we’ll get back to that.) In that moment, we are watching the seeming assault from a distance, but we are otherwise entirely in Ruby’s POV: disoriented, disgusted, and terrified about everything that’s happening.
After an explanation from William about the work of Hiram Epstein (the mad scientist whose ghost caused Leti so much trouble in the haunted house episode), Ruby begins taking advantage of this newfound gift. She starts small, with an afternoon in the park and a free ice cream she gets simply for being white(*). Then she returns to Marshall Field, where Paul the creepy manager not only hires her right away, but gives her an assistant manager position rather than the salesgirl job Ruby had once hoped for.
(*) At the risk of comparing every other episode to an Eddie Murphy routine, the free ice cream bit — and Hillary’s adventures in general — conjured up the classic SNL short film “White Like Me,” where Murphy used a team of makeup artists to pose as a white man. At one point, a convenience store clerk refuses to let him pay for a newspaper, since there are no black people around to witness the transaction.
There is nothing outwardly special about Hillary. She is put-together and confident, but it seems like Paul and other characters on the show respond to her fundamental whiteness itself, rather than, say, that she’s a bombshell like Marilyn Monroe or as hilarious as Lucille Ball. She’s like the limp Pat Boone cover of “Tutti Frutti” that the other salesgirls listen to in the break room, as opposed to the Little Richard original that we hear later in the episode: Nearly all that’s unique and soulful about Ruby has been stripped away, yet this version is inherently more acceptable to white folks, because they recognize themselves in it and see Ruby/Richard as exotic novelties at best (note how excited the girls are to “let” the lone black salesgirl, Tamara, show them the South Side), hostile alien invaders at worst.
The magic never lasts quite as long as Ruby needs it to — her face explodes open as she rushes out of the job interview with Paul(*) — but she very much throws herself into the Hillary role, becoming haughtier by the day. (Though her scolding of Tamara plays less as her cosplaying bigotry than it does her being tough on someone from her part of town whose work will reflect on any other black people to apply for such a job.) Eventually, though, it stops being fun. First, William makes Ruby (as herself) go undercover as a maid at the lodge so she can retrieve an item from Captain Lancaster’s office, where she also encounters a tongueless man bound in the closet, whimpering for help. Then, during the Marshall Field staff field trip to her neighborhood, she spots Paul trying to rape Tamara in an alley. Tamara is able to fight him off and get back inside, but it’s the last Ruby seems to want of Hillary Davenport’s life — or, at least, of her job at the department store. She has walked a mile in this white woman’s shoes, and ultimately she wants to use them as a weapon, repeatedly stabbing a bound-and-gagged Paul with the stiletto heel as punishment for his sins. She times the attack so that Hillary’s skin will slough off midway through, ensuring that Paul will know it was a black woman who so thoroughly hurt and humiliated him.
(*) I suppose one could ask exactly how Ruby made it home each time the spell wore off, since she would be a naked black woman covered in blood and guts, but where would be the fun in that? In general, the less you try to think about logistics, the better Lovecraft Country tends to work.
As powerful as Ruby finds herself when she can pose as Hillary, she’s still a woman in a society run by men. In the episode’s last big twist, it turns out the magic can be used this way, too, as “William” is revealed to have been Christina all along. The clues for this were hiding in plain sight: the two never appeared together, ducked questions about the nature of their relationship, and Christina has complained to Atticus about the unfair nature of her gender excluding her from power. Christina’s bursting out of William is a disgusting cherry on top of this wonderfully nausea-inducing sundae — at one point, you can see her frailer arms and hands moving up his back and along his limbs — and a reminder that no matter where you think you’re standing on the ladder of society, there’s always going to be someone on a higher rung trying to kick you down.
“Strange Case” is not for the faint of heart, or stomach, but it may be the best, most memorable Lovecraft Country episode yet.
Some other thoughts:
* While Ruby is strutting around town as Hillary, Sammy the bartender — who is, as has been suggested in previous episodes, Montrose’s lover — assumes a different identity of his own by participating in a drag queen show. It’s remarkable how many different aspects of the black experience in the 20th century this show is able to cover, with the horror genre somehow binding it all together. That’s true even when we get a subplot like this that, at least for the moment, seems entirely non-magical. Then again, there’s definitely some magic in Michael Kenneth Williams’ performance, as Montrose is able to briefly shed his usual internal self-loathing and let loose at the show with Sammy and the other drag queens.
* Misha Green (here sharing the writing credit with Jonathan Kidd and Sonya Winton) opts to end the episode not on the William/Christina discovery, but on Tic finally translating the word “DIE” from the pages, then calling a woman (his former flame from Korea?) who appears to know something of what’s happening. It’s a confusing scene (Lovecraft tends to be much stronger at emotional clarity than the narrative kind), and thus a far more anticlimactic note to end on than an incredulous Ruby snarling, “You’ve been William this whole fucking time?”
* When Ruby is hiding in Lancaster’s office closet, she gets a blurry glimpse of him with his shirt off, and it sure looks like he has had a black man’s torso transplanted onto his body, Frankenstein-style. We’ll see if there’s more to that story down the road, or if it’s just meant as both a garish minor detail and a literal bit of appropriation, akin to what happens in Get Out. Ruby is enjoying the benefits of white skin at the same time that Lancaster is secretly using black skin for his own nefarious purposes.
* Hillary is a more prominent and complicated role for Jamie Neumann than Dell the racist dog lady was back in the second episode. The re-use of Dell’s form suggests that the spell borrows the images of people Christina already knows, which would mean that Lancaster actually killed the real William to take over the lodge, and that Christina has been impersonating him ever since.
* The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story playing on the TV set in Paul’s office as Ruby attacks him is from a 1955 episode of the CBS anthology series Climax!. Later called Climax Mystery Theater, the show is most famous for featuring the first filmed version of a James Bond book, with a version of Casino Royale starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy Bond.” Like the newscast earlier about the Kenyan locusts shedding their skin (which plays while William is cutting the Hillary skin off of Ruby), the archival footage not only echoes what’s happening on screen, but offers us a bit of a visual respite from the blood in what’s already a very gory hour of television.
* Finally, lots of great out-of-the-box song choices this week, particularly using a selection from Ntozake Shange’s 1976 theater piece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf to accompany the sequence where Ruby enjoys an ice cream cone as Hillary. Other tunes: “Tonight, You Belong to Me,” by Patience & Prudence; “Return to Love,” by Black Atlass; “Money,” by Cardi B (a fine pick for Hillary’s job interview at Marshall Field); “Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean to accompany Montrose and Sammy’s sex scene; “Please Give Your Love To Me,” by Robin Robinson; both the Pat Boone and Little Richard versions of “Tutti Frutti”; “My Baby Dearest Darling,” by The Charms; “Lonely World,” by Moses Sumney; “Bodak Yellow,” by Cardi B; and, once again over the closing credits, the Alice Smith version of “Sinnerman.”